An Exploration in Tech: From Altamira to Google

Six countries and eight months later, I’m finally back at Duke after a junior-spring hiatus for a study abroad program in Spain. My experience abroad, while just as colorful as the Spanish

View of Spanish street from Plaza Mayor, Madrid

View of Spanish street from Plaza Mayor, Madrid

stereotype (and equally filled with paella and sangria), extended much deeper than beaches and bullfights. Fulfilling my Trinity requirements of social sciences through my Duke in Madrid courses unveiled challenging perspectives on memory, particularly of the Spanish Civil War, and on the psychology of the Spanish population and its individuals.

One of the greatest themes throughout my experience was the evolution of technology. Our Duke cohort of eight students visited the Cave of Altamira in rainy, northern Spain, which holds some of the world’s most famous, miraculously preserved cave paintings. More than anything, the physicality of the paintings, the oldest of which dated 35,600 years old, shocked me. The sheer passage of time embodied by the paintings eclipsed our human history twenty-fold, and our generation many times over.

In Altamira, I witnessed the evolution of perspective, as the cave artists experimented with foreground and background using raised and lowered ridges of the cave; simultaneously, my perspective on self-importance, at least in comparison to the whole of human history, changed. Not only is a lifespan negligible compared to the age of the world, but it is also only a drop in the bucket of the world’s population. A scientific discovery only makes an impact in the context of the accumulation of the world’s intelligence and knowledge, just as one cave painting gains more meaning from the context of all the paintings, older and newer, around it.

In May, I transitioned to a much more temporal study of technology in the Silicon Valley,

Photo credit: Robert Hahn

Photo credit: Robert Hahn

specifically as a software engineering intern at Google. I worked on the Fonts and Text team under Internationalization, where I sharpened my engineering prowess under a canopy of red, yellow, and blue umbrellas amid a sea of cheerful bike bell rings. While I met a wide range of interns and engineers working on a range of fascinating, impactful projects, I definitely applied my mind in a much more focused, practical manner. A modern day in engineering definitely stands in stark contrast to the lofty speculation I undertook in Spain.

Back in Durham, as I navigate foreign pathways, puzzle at the changed food venues, and double-take at new Duke buildings that seem to have popped up out of nowhere after construction, I’m thoroughly happy to have returned to Duke with a fresh mindset and renewed energy. After time away, the research that occurs here only seems more incredible, and I’m excited to explore it and write about it in the coming year.

Olivia_Zhu_100Post by Olivia Zhu, senior, Biophysics major and Computer Science minor

Four-Fifths of a Banana is Better than Half

Fractions strike fear in the hearts of many grade schoolers – but a new study reveals that they don’t pose a problem for monkeys.

Even as adults, many of us struggle to compute tips, work out our taxes, or perform a slew of other tasks that use proportions or percentages. Where did our teachers and parents go wrong when explaining discounts and portions of pie? Are our brains simply not built to handle quantitative part-whole relationships?

Lauren Brent macaques

Fractions and logical relationships are some of the things a wild macaque might think about while grooming and being groomed. (image copyright Lauren Brent)

To try to answer these questions, my colleagues and I wanted to test whether other species understand fractions. If our fellow primates can reason about proportions, our minds likely evolved to do so too.

In our study, which appears online in the journal Animal Cognition, Marley Rossa (Trinity 2014), Dr. Elizabeth Brannon, and I asked whether rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) are able to compare ratios.

We let the monkeys play on a touch-screen computer for a candy reward. First we trained them to distinguish between two shapes that appeared on the screen: a black circle and a white diamond. When they touched the black circle, they heard a ding sound and received a piece of candy. But when they touched the white diamond, they heard a buzz sound and did not get any candy. The candy-loving monkeys quickly developed a habit of choosing the rewarding black circle.

Fractions example taken from

Next we introduced fractions. We showed two arrays on the screen, each with several black circles and white diamonds. The monkeys’ job was to touch the array having a greater ratio of black circles to white diamonds. For example, if there were three black circles and nine white diamonds on the left, and eight black circles and five white diamonds on the right, the monkey needed to touch the right side of the screen to earn her candy (8:5 is better than 3:9).

We didn’t always make it so easy, though. Sometimes both arrays had more black circles than white diamonds, or vice versa. Sometimes the array with the higher black-circle-to-white-diamond ratio actually had fewer black circles overall. They needed to find the largest fraction of black circles. For example, if there were eight black circles and 16 white diamonds on the left (8:16), and five black circles and six white diamonds on the right (5:6), the correct answer would be the latter, even though there were more black circles on the left side. That is how we made sure that monkeys were paying attention to the relative numbers of shapes in both arrays.

The monkeys were able to learn to compare proportions. They chose the array with the higher black-circle-to-white-diamond ratio about three-quarters of the time. Impressively, when we showed them new arrays with number combinations they had never seen before, the monkeys still tended to select the array with the better ratio.

Our results suggest that monkeys understand the magnitude of ratios. They also indicate that monkeys might be able to answer another type of question: analogies. These four-part statements you may have seen on standardized tests take the form “glove is to hand as sock is to foot.”

This kind of reasoning requires not only recognizing the relationship between two items (glove and hand) but also how that relationship compares with the relationship between the other two items (sock and foot). Understanding the relationships between relationships — that is, second-order relationships — was believed to require language, making it possibly a uniquely human ability. But in our study, monkeys successfully determined the relationship between two fractions – each one a relationship between two numbers – to make their choices.

If monkeys can reason about ratios and maybe even analogies, our minds are likely to have been set up with these skills as well.

The next step for this line of research will be to figure out how best to employ these in-born abilities when teaching proportions, percentages, and fractions to human children.

CITATION: “Comparison of discrete ratios by rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta)” Caroline B. Drucker, Marley A. Rossa, Elizabeth M. Brannon. Animal Cognition, Aug. 19, 2015. DOI: 10.1007/s10071-015-0914-9


Guest post by graduate student Caroline B. Drucker. Caroline is curious about both the evolutionary origins and neural basis of numerical cognition, which she currently studies in lemurs and rhesus monkeys.

Uneasy Lies the Gut That Wears the Crown

Meerkats of the Kalahari Desert are social, and wormy. (all photos by Ed Kabay)

Meerkats of the Kalahari Desert are social, and wormy. (Photo by Ed Kabay)


The dominant matriarchs of meerkat society carry a heavy burden.

Not only are these females stressed from having to constantly scold and cajole the rowdy members of the tribe to maintain their perch as the primary breeders and enforcers of the clan, they apparently host more parasites as well.

In a two-year study at the Kuruman River Reserve in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert, Duke graduate student Kendra Smyth sampled the parasite diversity of 83 sexually mature meerkats living in 18 social groups.

Specifically, she gathered 97 freshly deposited poops for later analysis. Such is the glamour of graduate student field work.

After diluting and spinning, the samples were microscopically analyzed for careful counting of the eggs of six species of intestinal worms.

What Smyth found in the end was consistent with similar studies done in male-dominant societies: The boss is more heavily parasitized.

So, why is that? Well, it might be that the matriarch’s stressful job takes some resources away from her immune defenses, or it may be that her close contact with more members of the tribe puts her at greater risk of picking up worms from others.

Meerkats, and graduate students like Kendra Smyth, are often seen scanning the horizon.

Meerkats, and graduate students like Kendra Smyth, are often seen scanning the horizon. (Photo by Ed Kabay)

The bottom line is that the meerkat model of sexual selection carries a cost, which, as in other species, is more heavily borne by the breeders.

Smyth’s findings appeared online this month in Behavioral Ecology and are a part of her dissertation research on immune function in meerkats. In addition to poop, she’s sampling blood and looking at hormone levels and other variables.

“Parasites are a proxy for measuring the immune system,” said Smyth, who is a fourth-year grad student with Christine Drea of Evolutionary Anthropology and the Program in Ecology.

And wild-living meerkats can be a kind of proxy for humans. “Most of what we know about the immune system comes from laboratory mice living in unrealistic conditions,” Smyth said. “They’re housed singly in clean cages and they’re parasite-free. I’m not convinced that that’s how the immune system works when you put them in the natural world.”

“For any kind of species living in groups, like humans, it’s important to understand the dynamics of the spread of disease and which individuals might be susceptible,” she said.

During one meerkat weigh-in, this practical joker put his thumb on the scale.

During one meerkat weigh-in, this practical joker put his thumb on the scale. (Photo by Kendra Smyth)

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (IOS-1021633) and a dissertation travel grant from the Duke Graduate School. Research at the Kuruman River Reserve is supported by the European Research Council (294494), Cambridge, Duke and Zurich Universities.

Post by Karl Leif Bates

Karl Leif Bates

Marine Lab Hosts 500+ at Open House

In what was a record high turnout, more than 500 people made their way to Pivers Island on Saturday Aug. 1, for the Duke University Marine Lab’s annual open house. Visitors listened to whales, peered at plankton and sea urchin larvae through microscopes, and learned how salinity gradients and wind can drive ocean currents at 16 research stations scattered throughout the campus. Kids of all ages also got to meet horse conchs, pen shell clams, tulip snails, fiddler crabs, slipper snails and other creatures in the marine lab’s touch tanks. “We don’t think of snails as having teeth but they really do; that radula is quite a weapon. It’s like a cross between a chainsaw and a tongue,” said Duke visiting professor Jim Welch. Photos by Amy Chapman-Braun, Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke.

Hugs Before Drugs – The Price of Emotional Neglect

Every exhausted parent can be tempted to check out at times, especially when the little ones are testing limits.

A happy child, presumably not neglected, buried in sand. (D. Sharon Pruitt via Wikimedia Commons)

A happy child, presumably not neglected, buried in sand. (D. Sharon Pruitt via Wikimedia Commons)

But when moments of autopilot become months or years, that is considered emotional neglect and it’s strongly linked to the subsequent development of clinical depression in children. Ahmad Hariri’s lab at Duke studies emotional neglect, defined as a caregiver consistently overlooking signs that a child needs comfort or attention, even for something positive.

“Early in life, during infancy, an emotional neglectful parent would regularly be unresponsive and uninvolved with their child,” said Jamie Hanson, a postdoctoral researcher in Hariri’s group. “In early childhood, parents would be clearly unengaged in playing with the child, showing little to no affection during interactions.”

In a study published online in Biological Psychiatry, Hanson, Hariri and their collaborator Douglas Williamson of the University of Texas Health Sciences Center San Antonio, found that the more emotional neglect the children had experienced in their lives, the less responsive their brain was to a reward (winning money in a card game). They had scanned the brains of 106 children between 11 and 15 years of age, and then again two years later.

The scientists focused on the ventral striatum, a brain area known to fire up in response to positive feedback. This region is thought to play a role in optimism and hopefulness, and its dysfunction has been associated with depression. The team wondered: Are the kids with dulled ventral striatum activity more likely to have symptoms of depression? They were.

Ahmad Hariri

Ahmad Hariri

Depression rates start to rise around 15 or 16 years of age, and that’s why the team focused on this age. The cohort of kids they studied were part of Williamson’s Teen Alcohol Outcomes Study (TAOS), and Hanson and Hariri hope to continue following them.

In a different cohort called the Duke Neurogenetics Study, Hariri’s team has found that the responsiveness of the ventral striatum and the amygdala — another area that handles life stress — may help predict how likely young adults are to develop problem drinking in response to stress or to engage in risky sexual behavior.

Being able to identify the children or young adults who are at risk for depression and anxiety is a tall order. But the possibility that we could one day funnel extra support to these individuals and help them avoid a lifetime of medicines and therapy is what keeps Hariri and his team going.

Personally, as a parent, I’m excited see what the Hariri group will do next. During our interview, I couldn’t help running a few scenarios by him and Hanson. Am I emotionally neglecting my toddler if she’s having a tantrum and I have to leave the room or I’ll scream?

“You can have a bad week,” said Hariri, who is also a dad. “You’re not ruining your kid.”

KellyRae_Chi_100Guest post by Kelly Rae Chi, a Cary-based freelance writer who covers brain science for Duke Research.

Pinpointing the Cause of Coughs and Sneezes

Duke students are trying to help doctors find a faster way to pinpoint the cause of their patients’ coughs, sore throats and sniffles.

The goal is to better determine if and when to give antibiotics in order to stem the rise of drug-resistant superbugs, said senior Kelsey Sumner.

For ten weeks this summer, Sumner and fellow Duke student Christopher Hong teamed up with researchers at Duke Medicine to identify blood markers that could be used to tell whether what’s making someone sick is a bacteria, or a virus.

More than half of children who go to the doctor for a sore throat, ear infection, bronchitis or other respiratory illness leave with a prescription for antibiotics, even though the majority of these infections — more than 70% — turn out to be caused by viruses, which antibiotics can’t kill.

The end result is that antibiotics are prescribed roughly twice as often as they should be, to the tune of 11.4 million unnecessary prescriptions a year.

“It’s a big problem,” said Emily Ray Ko, MD, PhD, a physician at Duke Regional Hospital who worked with Sumner and Hong on the project, alongside biostatistician Ashlee Valente and infectious disease researcher Ephraim Tsalik of Duke’s Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine.

Prescribing antibiotics when they aren’t needed can make other infections trickier to treat.

Fast, accurate genetic tests may soon help doctors tell if you really need antibiotics. Photo from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fast, accurate genetic tests may soon help doctors tell if you really need antibiotics. Photo from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s because antibiotics wipe out susceptible bacteria, but a few bacteria that are naturally resistant to the drugs survive, which allows them to multiply without other bacteria to keep them in check.

More than two million people develop drug-resistant bacterial infections each year.

A single superbug known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, kills more Americans every year than emphysema, HIV/ AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and homicide combined.

Using antibiotics only when necessary can help, Ko said, but doctors need a quick and easy test that can be performed while the patient is still in the clinic or the emergency room.

“Most doctors need to know within an hour or two whether someone should get antibiotics or not,” Ko said. “Delaying treatment in someone with a bacterial infection could have serious and potentially life threatening consequences, which is one of the main reasons why antibiotics are over-prescribed.”

With help from Sumner and Hong, the team has identified differences in patients’ bloodwork they hope could eventually be detected within a few hours, whereas current tests can take days.

The researchers made use of the fact that bacteria and viruses trigger different responses in the immune system.

They focused on the genetic signature generated by tiny snippets of genetic material called microRNAs, or miRNAs, which play a role in controlling the activity of other genes within the cell.

Using blood samples from 31 people, ten with bacterial pneumonia and 21 with flu virus, they used a technique called RNA sequencing to compare miRNA levels in bacterial versus viral infections.

So far, the researchers have identified several snippets of miRNA that differ between bacterial and viral infections, and could be used to discriminate between the two.

“Hopefully it could be used for a blood test,” Sumner said.

“One goal of these types of assays could be to identify infections before symptoms even appear,” Ko said. “Think early detection of viral infections like Ebola, for example, where it would be helpful to screen people so you know who to quarantine.”

Sumner and Hong were among 40 students selected for a summer research program at Duke called Data+. They presented their work at the Data+ Final Symposium on July 23 in Gross Hall.

Data+ is sponsored by the Information Initiative at Duke, the Social Sciences Research Institute and Bass Connections. Additional funding was provided by the National Science Foundation via a grant to the departments of mathematics and statistical science.



Writing by Robin Smith; photos and video by Christine Delp and Hannah McCracken



Brain Camp Makes ‘Aha Moments’

Final presentations for the Neuroscience and Neuroethics Camp were held in the new headquarters of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

Final presentations for the Neuroscience and Neuroethics Camp were held in the new headquarters of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. (photo by  Jon Lepofsky)

Given just two weeks to formulate a hypothesis about brains, Duke’s Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroethics Camp students spoke with impressive confidence as they presented at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) on July 16.

The high school students had designed experiments using the concepts and methods of cognitive neuroscience to demonstrate what is unique about human brains.

“It was good to see the curiosity, energy, and critical thinking that was present throughout the students’ projects,” said Jon Lepofsky, Academic Director for the Cognitive Neuroscience & Neuroethics camp, the Duke Youth Programs summer program of hands-on, applied problem-solving activities and labs was developed in partnership with DIBS.

Campers dissected sheep brains

The campers dissected real sheep brains

Lepofsky said he was pleased to start the first year of the camp with an engaged, diverse, and thoughtful group of 22 students.

Andie Meddaugh, Xi Yu Liu, Emily Lu and Anand Wong were working on a project involving the logic and the emotion of the human brain. Their hypothesis was that the ability to combine logic and emotion to create a subjective logic shows the difference between human brains and other intelligence processing systems, like artificial intelligence.

Meddaugh said she liked thinking about the brain and logic.

“I enjoy thinking about the problem of what makes us special,” said Meddaugh.

Another group of students presented a project involving the social construct and morality of the brain.

Nicolas Douglass, Abigail Efird, Grace Garret and Danielle Dy are using a hypothesis that suggests if organisms are presented with an issue of resource availability how they respond is a matter of survival.  They proposed using birds, humans, and monkeys to test the reactions of each organism as it is placed outside of its comfort zone.

Abigail Efird said teamwork and “aha moments” were the best way to conduct this project.

“It took human ingenuity and scientific development in order for us to come up with different strategies,” said Efird. “It was surprising to see that humans are not as special and are very much similar to other organisms. “

The group's final "class picture" before heading home to High School.

The group’s final “class picture” before heading home to High School.

Lepofsky said at the end of the program, students will leave with a new set of critical thinking tools and a better understanding of decision- making.

“I know the students will walk away with a deeper understanding of how to evaluate news stories celebrating neuroscience,” Lepofsky said. “They will know how to think like scientists and how to ask quality questions.”

Along with developing a hypothesis on the human brain, the students participated in interactive workshops on perception and other forms of non-conscious processing with Duke researchers. They’ve engaged in debates about topics in neuroethics and neurolaw. In addition to that they went on lab tours and visits to the DiVE.

For more information on Duke’s Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroethics Camp visit or call (919) 684-6259.

Warren_Shakira_hed100 Guest post by Shakira Warren, NCCU Summer Intern

Undergrads Share Results, and Lack Thereof

ashby and grundwald

Arts & Sciences Dean Valerie Ashby and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research Ron Grunwald got the big picture of the poster session from an LSRC landing.

Dozens of Duke undergrads spent the summer working in labs, in part to learn why science is called “research” not “finding.”

“About a third of these students ended up without any data,” said Ron Grunwald, associate dean for undergraduate research, during a Friday poster session in the atrium of the LSRC building for three of the summer research programs.

Biology junior Eric Song gets it now. He spent the summer trying to culture one specific kind of bacteria taken from the abdomens of an ant called Camponotus chromaiodes, which he collected in the Duke Forest. All he got was

Eric Song

Eric Song’s poster featured a photo of the ant and the mysterious white stuff.

“this white stuff showing up and we don’t even know what that is.” His faculty mentor in the Genomics Summer Fellows Program, Jennifer Wernegreen, was hoping to do some genetic sequences on the bacteria, but the 10-week project never made it that far. “We’re only interested in the genome basically,” Song said good-naturedly.

Christine Zhou did get what she set out for, mastering the art of arranging E.coli bacteria in orderly rows of tight little dots, using a specially adapted ink jet printer. Working with graduate student Hannah Meredith and faculty mentor Linchong You, she was able to lay the bugs down at a rate of 500 dots per minute, which might lead to some massive studies. “In the future, we’re hoping to use the different colored cartridges to print multiple kinds of bacteria at the same time,” she said.

Sean Sweat

Sean Sweat (left) discusses her mouse study.

Neuroscience senior Sean Sweat also got good results, finding in her research with faculty mentor Staci Bilbo, that opiate addiction can be lessened in mice by handling them more, and identifying some of the patterns of gene expression that may lie behind that effect.

Neuroscience senior Obia Muoneke wanted to know if adolescents are more likely than children or adults to engage in risky behaviors. Muoneke, who worked with mentor Scott Huettel, said her results showed the influence of peers. “Adolescents are driven to seek rewards while with a peer,” said Muoneke. “Adults are more motivated to avoid losing rewards when they are by themselves.”

The new dean of Trinity College, chemist Valerie Ashby, worked the room asking questions before addressing everyone from a landing overlooking the atrium. “How many of you wake up thinking ‘I want nothing to happen today that I am uncertain about?’” she asked. Well, Ashby continued, scientists need to become comfortable with the unexpected and the unexplainable – such as not having any data after weeks of work.

“We need you to be scientists,” Ashby said, and a liberal arts education is a good start. “If all you took was science classes, you would not be well-educated,” she said.

_ post by Shakira Warren and Karl Leif Bates


Karl Leif Bates

Duke’s MOOCs Used to Supplement Education

Startup Stock PhotosA new Duke study of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, has found that they are democratizing learning by supplementing traditional forms of higher education.

A study of 13 free, open-access digital courses offered by Duke using the Coursera platform illustrates that MOOCs are popular among youngsters, retirees and other non-traditional student populations.

The study is in the current issue of Educational Media International.

Duke researchers analyzed data from pre-course surveys administered to everyone who registered for a Duke MOOC in the Fall 2014 semester. They looked specifically at three groups: people under 18, adults over 65, and people who reported that they did not have access to higher education opportunities. Based on comments from over 9,000 learners who fell into these groups, the researchers found qualitative evidence that MOOCs met their needs for content they would not otherwise have access to.

student_laptop_link“The idea was trying to get a better handle on individuals who were underserved, because so much of the popular press has focused on highly-educated, white (for the most part), upper middle class folks taking Coursera courses,” said Lorrie Schmid, the lead researcher on the study. “We wanted to get a sense of these other groups and how they might be approaching, in similar or different ways, these types of classes. “

The study, based on surveys of MOOC enrollees, found that many people under 18 took MOOCs to learn about topics not taught at their school and to explore different disciplines, often to help them choose their future academic or career path. Adults over 65 often took MOOCs to pursue lifelong learning and keep their minds active, regardless of age, and because they wanted to mentor younger students in their professional field.  In addition, the online courses were the only option for some older adults with limited mobility and finances, the study found.

A few examples: A 10-year-old with autism who is home-schooled reported taking a MOOC to learn more about chemistry. A grandmother took a MOOC course in order to help her granddaughter prepare for nursing school. And a graduate student took a Duke statistics MOOC to hone research and analysis skills.

Schmid said that across all three groups, “the theme that was most pronounced was that Coursera classes were supplementing or enhancing their education that they were getting from other either K-12 or higher education formal courses.”

LockemerGuest Post by Courtney Lockemer, Center for Instructional Technology